the smell of my desperation has become a stench

Try, try again

Leta has been taking piano lessons for over a year and half, and her relationship with this activity is complicated. If she ever starts dating a paraplegic in Russia who doesn’t speak English and can’t move to America because he has 14 foster kids I’ll say, “Remember piano lessons? You can handle this!”

She long ago surpassed my skill level and the only help I can give her during her daily practice sessions is to tell her to play through everything twice. Sometimes I’ll sit with her and nod if I think it sounded right, but some of you are probably like WAIT LETA DO NOT TRUST HER. Because Radiohead sounds right to me. In fact, this is my all time favorite Radiohead song:

Yes, I’m totally serious. Don’t look at me like that.

She’s got talent in spades, but she gets very frustrated when she has to learn a new song. I wrote about this when she turned eight, how the perfectionism she inherited from me can turn a wrong note into the destruction of her future. When she can’t play a new song right the first time, everything that has ever gone wrong in her life surfaces and that A flat she missed is now suddenly cancer. And it has spread into every organ. Oh, and now she’s on the floor. Yep, she’s lying on the floor. And she says she’s dying. Sure sounds like she’s dying.

Once she learns the song, however, she’s delighted to play it. Well, okay. Sort of. She’s delighted to play it once. That I make her play everything twice every day is something she will bring up again and again as evidence that I was the meanest mother who ever lived. And every time she does it I’ll ask her if I ever broke a lamp over her head like Great Granny Hamilton did to Grandpa Mike and then remind her that SOMEONE got to eat Fruity Pebbles for dinner every night AND IT WASN’T GRANDPA MIKE.

Here’s where some of you are totally going to disagree with me and possibly judge my parenting style. And that’s fine. That’s cool. We can still be friends. You can still come over for a glass of wine. I might spit in it first, but you won’t even notice.

Leta has more than once begged to quit piano. There have been a few songs that were so difficult for her to learn than she wanted to pick up the piano and throw it across the room. And I understand the distress she was experiencing. It’s a distress that she will encounter in various experiences throughout her life. Quitting gets rid of that momentary frustration, but it doesn’t help her learn how to work toward any sort of resolution. So she doesn’t get to quit.

Would the meanest mother who ever lived please stand up? Oh look. I’ve been standing here the whole time.

On Saturday Leta had Federation where she was required to play two memorized songs in front of three judges. In preparation for this her teacher gathered all her students for an informal recital at a friend’s home last Wednesday night. I’d been listening closely to Leta’s songs while she practiced them over the last few weeks and noticed she was a little wobbly in the middle of one of them, but when I asked her if she was ready for the recital she waved her hand and assured me she’d do fine. Like, whatever. It’s just piano. It’s not anything important like the “iCarly” series finale.

Unfortunately that wobbly piece reared its ugly head right there in that recital room in front of all of her peers and their parents. She lost her place about thirty seconds into the song, stopped, and then turned in embarrassment to her teacher to ask for direction. The silence at that moment was uncomfortable for everyone in the room but mostly for her.

Every other kid bumbled portions of their songs, too, and later before tucking her into bed I told her I wanted to have a talk.

“Are you mad about the recital?” she asked, worried that her mistake had somehow let me down.

“No, not at all,” I answered and then I rubbed her arm to assure her. “I’m not mad. But I want to ask you something. Do you think you were prepared?”

She shrugged.

“Leta, I don’t care what anyone in that room thought about how you played. In fact, I don’t care what score the judges give you on Saturday.”

“But why? That doesn’t make sense. Why do I have to play in front of judges if it doesn’t matter?”

“It matters that you prepare yourself. It matters that you learn how to prepare. It matters that you know how it feels to be prepared. And that means practicing and messing up and then practicing some more and messing up some more. The judges are there just to give you something to prepare for.”

“But I mess up a lot!”

“We all mess up, Leta,” I explained. “But you learn when you mess up. You get better when you mess up. Don’t be afraid of messing up. The reason your teacher held the recital tonight was so that all of you could look at yourselves and ask, ‘Am I ready? Am I prepared?’ So that all of you could identify what you need to work on.”

“I have so much to work on,” she said and then shook her head as if stranded at the bottom of a mountain.

“Would you like to be prepared for the judges on Saturday?”

“Yes,” she answered but it was more of a question.

“Okay,” I said. “Here’s what we’re going to do. Tomorrow when you get home from school you and I are going to spend as much time as it takes to get those two pieces down. I’m going to walk through the room while you play and I’m going to bang on the coffee table and I’m going to knock over vases. That way you can learn how to ignore everything else and think about the notes.”

“What if you break something?”

“You let me worry about that, okay? Let me help you with this. Because, Leta, you’re looking at one of the worst messer uppers in the world. I know how to learn from messing up.”

And that’s what we did. She sat down at the piano and played her songs while I made the hugest, dumbest, most obnoxious racket I could. I dropped giant books on the floor. I knocked over stools. I suddenly jumped right next to her face and yelled, “CHOCOLATE CHOCOLATE CHOCOLATE CHOCOLATE.”

And she ignored me. She’d miss a note and move on. She’d miss another note and move on. After an hour she could get through both songs without a single hiccup while I banged a pot and pan behind her head.

When we were finished and I high fived her for her hard work she asked, “Can I have some of that chocolate you were talking about?”

Cut to Saturday afternoon. She was dressed formally as is required by the rules of the program, but that didn’t stop her from running up and down a set of stairs to wiggle out her nerves. And, oh, was she nervous. She kept biting her lip and sneaking quick glances at the closed door to the performance room. I didn’t say much, I just rubbed her back here and there while we waited, my way of acknowledging her jitters and reminding her that I was already proud.


And then they called us in.

It was a tiny room with barely enough space to fit a piano let alone three judges, two parents, and one little sister high on adrenaline (“Marlo, if you are quiet during Leta’s performance we will go home and bake cookies in the oven. Or I could just shoot you.”) Leta stood next to the bench, presented them her sheet music and announced the names of her songs. And then she sat down to play.

I wasn’t nervous about her first song. She’s been able to play it with ease for several months, and she breezed right through it again. In the silent eternity before they signaled that she could begin her next piece, I closed my eyes, pulled a surprisingly cooperative Marlo deeper into my lap and held my breath.

Maybe it was my intuition as a mother, but I could tell after the first note that this was going to be the best she had ever played this song. There was a confidence in the dance between her two hands that I had not ever heard before, a fluidity in the notes that broke my heart with its beauty. When she hit the final, major-key note at the low end of treble clef I involuntarily started bawling. I didn’t want the judges to see or hear me so I hid my face in Marlo’s hair, a futile maneuver because she instantly perked up and screamed, “ARE WE GONNA BAKE COOKIESTH?!”

They told us the scores wouldn’t be revealed for a few days, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter one goddamn bit. Once we were out of the room and around the corner I knelt down so that Leta could see the light in my eyes and I hugged her as hard as I could without hurting her.

“You were so prepared,” I whispered in her ear. “I’m so proud of you. I’m so so so proud.”


She hugged me back, and when she pulled away her face was beaming. “I did awesome, didn’t I?”

Yes. Yes, she did. She nailed it. And to celebrate we baked the fuck out of those cookies.

  • Kelly Whalen

    2013/02/26 at 3:58 pm

    Love this story. Parenting is a tough job, but sometimes we see glimpses of who they are growing into and it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing to witness.

  • margarita

    2013/02/26 at 3:58 pm

    In suzuki violin, we are taught to play something we mess up 7 times right before we move on. It’s an excellent practice technique.

  • Christine

    2013/02/26 at 4:01 pm

    I hope in a few years I can be mean just like you and that my daughter will soak up that ‘mean’ parenting and grow and learn and develop just as Leta is because of it. Well, well done to the both of you.

  • twinmomma

    2013/02/26 at 4:02 pm

    This made ME cry. Love it. Perfect.

  • Deana Morton

    2013/02/26 at 4:03 pm

    You are a great mother and your girls are amazing people.

  • Sara

    2013/02/26 at 4:03 pm

    Let them judge. You know your girls, Heather.
    Learn from messing up, Beautiful Girl, and you will win at life.
    We are ALL proud of you.

  • JennC

    2013/02/26 at 4:04 pm

    You are the BEST MOTHER EVAR! Monthly, weekly, daily, I struggle with my children over practicing the piano. “Why?” “Why do you make us do this?” “Why do you hate us so much?”. Thank you for giving me the words for WHY.

  • Isabella Organ

    2013/02/26 at 4:05 pm

    Your technique of having her practice through chaos is brilliant. Nice work, Heather!

  • Mzla

    2013/02/26 at 4:08 pm

    Yes. This. This is why we practice – the life lessons from mastering a skill, any skill, are pricelss. Congrats on the preparedness. 🙂

  • bsnebold

    2013/02/26 at 4:08 pm

    What a wonderful post!! I was nervous, then sympathetic to Leta, then proud of you, then laughed at noises you were making, then, then, then, I felt like I had personally done the work myself! And then, I cried with JOY over the meaning of all of this. You are a wonderful mother. Leta is a real champion. And Marlo gets to be Marlo!!! Love you all.

  • Amy Peck

    2013/02/26 at 4:08 pm

    You have made me cry. I love your parenting style. You are amazing!

  • Nancy Minchew

    2013/02/26 at 4:10 pm

    I think it is AWESOME that you love your girls so much – that you are teaching them how to survive after messing up! Because you are right – we ALL mess up! Learning how to pick ourselves up is the real way to grow!

  • Jo

    2013/02/26 at 4:10 pm

    This was a brilliant story to share! Thanks Heather!

  • Kendall J

    2013/02/26 at 4:11 pm

    Seriously made me cry! Way to go Leta. And way to go, Heather. That is what parenting is all about…figuring out how to help your child no matter how crazy it may look at the time!

  • Daddy Scratches

    2013/02/26 at 4:11 pm

    And all this time, I’ve been teaching my kids by burning them with a hot iron. Your way seems better.
    But seriously, folks … Great story, Heather. Awesome moment for both of you. Congrats.

  • Jeanette Nolan Wrestler

    2013/02/26 at 4:12 pm

    That’s awesome! Way to go Leta! And if it’s any consolation, my sister was the EXACT. SAME. WAY. about playing piano. Until about high school when she just embraced the hell out of the whole thing. In her 30s now and can’t live without a piano in the house.

  • Julie

    2013/02/26 at 4:15 pm

    Yayyyyyy Leta! She looks so ADULT in that last picture. Wow. (And I think this is stellar parenting, btw. Not that I know word one about it, since I don’t have kids yet, but it seems like the type of situation where the battles are a lot harder for you than for her: she has the struggle, and you have the struggle plus the existential doubt).

  • hugsNpuppies

    2013/02/26 at 4:16 pm

    Wow, beautiful story! My daughter has just started to learn the guitar and when she practices, after much complaining and moaning, she pushes all of my buttons at once and I have to do breathing exercises not to grab that damn guitar and smash it into tiny bitsy pieces. So, well done to you!

  • Lori

    2013/02/26 at 4:16 pm

    My style of parenting. She thank you one day

  • =^..^=

    2013/02/26 at 4:17 pm

    Wow: Way to TOTALLY ACE that teaching point !
    Brava, sis !

  • Lori

    2013/02/26 at 4:17 pm

    My style of parenting. She’ll thank you one day

  • Kristan

    2013/02/26 at 4:19 pm

    “When we were finished and I high fived her for her hard work she asked, “Can I have some of that chocolate you were talking about?””

    ROFL. That a girl, Leta.

    I don’t know what to applaud in this story. Or rather, I don’t know what NOT to applaud. So I guess I’m just gonna clap my damn hands off. To you, to Leta, to Marlo. To the humor and the beauty. To piano. Well done, all of you.

    Most all, thank you. You’re not my mother, but you’ve reminded me (a) to play piano even when it’s hard, and (b) to mess up, so I can learn.

  • Jen

    2013/02/26 at 4:20 pm

    Heather, you are an awesome mother who wears her humanity like a badge. You made me cry because all that messing up you talked about–made you prepared too! I’m going to read this to my sweet girls. Thank you for showing me how to be a better mom! God bless you.

  • jennifer

    2013/02/26 at 4:21 pm

    What’s there to disagree with!?! That is is such great parenting, I want to post the steps on my fridge! Awesome job to you and awesome job to Leta for nailing despite fear, anxiety and nerves!

  • Angela L Delgado

    2013/02/26 at 4:23 pm

    I’m not crying–I’m just cutting onions in a really dusty apartment…

  • SheilaB

    2013/02/26 at 4:26 pm

    YOU! You are an awesome mom, Heather! So very proud of you for having her hang in there, letting her experience this memorable achievement. She will never forget that moment and your tears should be your validation of a job well done with her. 🙂

  • Luisa Munoz

    2013/02/26 at 4:26 pm

    I’m sure you’ve heard of Tiger Mom and the case of how she supervised, long hours of piano practice only praising her daughter for her mastery and not her efforts – which is completely fucked if you asked me and turns out her daughter was rebelling against her anyways. You’re sweet compared to Tiger mom. There’s a huge difference between a pushy parent off their trolley than to a parent, like yourself, who is wanting to teach their child a life lesson no school can teach. You giving her a valuable lesson, that in life, we do not begin as Masters of our own art. Great post x

  • Sarah Hubbell

    2013/02/26 at 4:30 pm

    Fabulous. I wish my mother had made that kinda racket behind me while I practiced the piano!

  • Josey

    2013/02/26 at 4:31 pm

    Oh man, THIS…this is what I hope to be as a mother (and why I am now in tears now at work!). I remember playing the piano over and over and over as a child, and feeling SO MUCH like Leta. I’m a perfectionist to a fault, and it’s STILL a problem in my life. *sigh* Well done, Leta, and well done, Heather! What a great moment all around.

  • Mamabigdog

    2013/02/26 at 4:32 pm

    You are not the meanest mom in the world. That’s me. Ask my daughter who’s in rehab. She tells me every chance she gets. Maybe if I had made her stick with piano, we wouldn’t be in this situation today. You did a great job with Leta, and if you don’t mind, I’m going to use all that stuff about messing up that you wrote when we go to Family Week next week for my daughter. Because I just want her to get well and have a good life.

  • Martha

    2013/02/26 at 4:33 pm

    That’s a pretty awesome story… I hope she gets to read this when she’s older along with all of the other letters you have written to her over the years!

  • sincerely_jenni

    2013/02/26 at 4:36 pm

    Awesome,awesome, awesome! So glad she had a good experience with this. Many parents would have just let their child quit. Good for you for turning this into a learning opportunity. 🙂

  • Meghan

    2013/02/26 at 4:37 pm

    I’ve never left a message on here before, but I love reading your blog. This is one of the sweetest parenting stories I’ve ever read. I played piano growing up and HATED recitals (and also happen to be one of those perfectionist first born types). Oh how nice it would have been to have some dialogue around preparation, hard work and the value of messing up. F*cking killer parenting 😉 Thanks for the moving read!

  • Robin Dearing

    2013/02/26 at 4:41 pm

    It’s like you are writing my experiences with my daughter and the piano. She loved it and hated it. Mostly she hated it when she couldn’t play a song perfectly the first time through. It was so frustrating. She knew she would get it if she practiced, but the frustration flooded in just the same. Sometimes she would kick the piano. Margaret had Sonatina Festival: One piece of music with three different movement usually 5 or 6 pages of music memorized. It was torture for both of us. I finally let her stop doing Sonatina Festival after a few years because I didn’t think I could take the stress of it. Now Margaret is 12. I let her quit formal lessons a couple of years ago so she could take guitar and singing lessons. She still plays the piano on her own and it is glorious and I practically cry every time she does. Children making music is one of life’s most precious gifts.

  • Beth

    2013/02/26 at 4:42 pm

    Oh these damn allergies must have just suddenly attacked me. Way to go mom, that’s why we get through the fucking ridiculous days…for those amazing moments of sheer bliss.

  • Angela Beth Cantido

    2013/02/26 at 4:42 pm

    I think the important thing is that you recognize the difference between getting frustrated and wanting to quit and wanting to quit the piano for dance or the trombone. You find all these great little places for life lessons and she’s amazing because of it.

  • Kate H

    2013/02/26 at 4:46 pm

    Go, Leta! I don’t want to bash on my parents because they were really great in many ways, but one thing they did was let me quit stuff when it got hard or boring, and I think it really has affected my ability to stick it out as an adult when faced with something I don’t want to do or know I’m likely to mess up. Good for you!

  • Emily

    2013/02/26 at 4:47 pm

    My mom has been teaching piano since the 70s. Literally no one has ever said to her, “I wish my parents would’ve let me quit piano earlier.” They always say they wish their parents made them keep taking lessons longer. I wasn’t allowed to quit until I was in high school, and I’m glad of that. Piano taught me to be very prepared and taught me to appear calm and stay focused even when I am incredibly nervous.

  • Shelley MacGregor

    2013/02/26 at 4:52 pm

    And I just got snowflakes in my eyes from shoveling.

  • Jeca51601

    2013/02/26 at 4:54 pm

    You are not alone in this, Heather. My 11 year old has had it easy so far; she’s very smart, great in school, good looking, and a pretty good kid. Unfortunately, because everything comes to hear almost effortlessness, when she encounters a problem she tends to give up – because she didn’t learn how to deal with loosing or not being in top 5% of everything. That’s way when she refused to go to her swimming classes (kind of fitness swimming, where you only do lap after lap after lap) because she was the slowest in one of her classes and in the middle of the pack in the other, we promptly denied her that right and marched her off to the community center where the classes were held. Crying, hysterics happened almost every time for the next nine weeks (twice a week), but we stood our ground, kept explaining her why are we doing that, and pushed her to do her best – not to be first, just to do her best!

    And it payed off tenfold! She’s improved her stamina, she swims faster, but most of all she learned that when you face a challenge and walk away but face it head-on, you will come out the other side better and more confident person then you were before. And she was very proud of herself and much more eager to take on the next level of swimming – beginning of a lifeguard program! Even her writing has improved, and she hates to write – just imagine a kid who has A+ in reading and oral presentation, but barely B in writing; that;s how much she hates it :)!

    I think that sometimes we are too lenient toward our kids, and we’re not doing them a favor by trying to shield them from everything challenging and unpleasant. We should not be too strict or try to make them into something they are not, like great swimmers or great basketball players. However, we should not let them quit over slightest of problems and obstacles. The truth lies (as always) in the middle, but that balanced approach is not always easy to achieve.

    As for me (and I will drove scorns from some people by saying this), I would gladly let her shed some tears now for a chance to grow up into a person ready to face whatever life trows at her. I think that is a fair and easy price to pay for a future life success.



  • Natalie Mikus

    2013/02/26 at 4:54 pm

    Love this, thank you.

  • Jeca51601

    2013/02/26 at 4:56 pm

    Obviously, it is this version “…when you face a challenge and don’t walk away but face it head-on…”


  • megan

    2013/02/26 at 4:57 pm

    What a story- thanks for sharing:) You are a great mom and Leta is a great kid.

  • jemmarie

    2013/02/26 at 5:04 pm

    Best MOMMY ever!!!

  • Necole

    2013/02/26 at 5:15 pm

    That was awesome. I guess I am a parent also, and so our my parents. My parents never let me quit anything.

  • CG

    2013/02/26 at 5:18 pm

    I’m twice (almost) your age, and I don’t even have any kids, but this made me cry and laugh and oh, so glad that I read your blog. I LOOK at many, but I READ yours. You are the best!

  • Amanda Korby

    2013/02/26 at 5:24 pm

    If all of my students’ parents did for them what you do for your children, my job would be infinitely easier. I can’t tell you how many times I have a kiddo shut down on me because they have to rewrite a paper.

  • LusherLaRue

    2013/02/26 at 5:33 pm

    Simple awesome, Heather.. What a great life lesson for Leta . . . and all of us. As Ben Affleck (paraphrasing) said in his Oscar acceptance speech, it doesn’t matter how we get knocked down in life, because we will. All that matters is that we keep getting up. As Henry Ford said, failure is simply the opportunity to more intelligently begin again. What a great lesson to learn at such a young age.

  • Cory Zacker

    2013/02/26 at 5:34 pm

    And I have allergies.

  • Elizabeth R

    2013/02/26 at 5:46 pm

    What an awesome story! I’m proud of both of you! And to jump on the bandwagon, I’m not tearing up reading that, one of my kids just poked me in the eye with a sharp stick is all. 🙂

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Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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